Rashbam: Then and Now (Vayera)

Towards the end of the Lot narrative we learn the origins of his two sons, Moav and Amon, who go on to found nations bordering Israel. But the way the Torah tells it seems odd. Genesis 19:37 reads הוּא אֲבִי-מוֹאָב, עַד-הַיּוֹם, “he is the father of the Moabites to this very day.”

What are we supposed to do when we read a phrase like “to this very day” in our sacred scriptures? We are thrust into a dilemma – because the phrase has a moving target. Words like today and tomorrow, in the context of biblical dialogue, are perfectly fine. But when those words are used by the narrator, it creates an ambiguity. Are we simply to read it as referring to the narrator’s era? Of what use is that for us? Or are we to understand it as referring to the day on which the text is read (that is, literally today, in our era)? What happens if that means the statement is no longer true?

Martin Lockshin, our lead Rashbam scholar, first points to Rashi’s understanding of the phrase:

Rashi ad Gen. 22:14 argues that the phrase ad hayom throughout the Bible is meant to be understood by any reader in any generation as meaning “until this very day that I am reading this text…This particular verse might present more problems than others for Rashi. It is difficult to claim that Moabites still exist today and that Moab should be considered their father “to this very day.” Even in the days of the Mishnah, the rabbis had doubts about whether Amonites and Moabites still existed. (Lockshin 80)

Rashbam takes the opposite tack from Rashi, with a very sensible comment:

Ad TO THIS VERY DAY: In the days of Moses. The phrase ad hayom always means until the days of the author who recorded the matter.

For Rashbam, Moses was the author of the Torah, and therefore Moses was talking about the Moabites and Amonites that he and the Israelites encountered on the route to the Promised Land.

What guidance can we take from these differing opinions? Rashi’s opinion is appealing to me, because it demonstrates a quality of sacred scripture that I seek to practice, which is that somehow an ancient text can speak to the present, no matter how distant and different it might seem.

And yet, in this case, such a reading would have produced an injustice, as we’ll see in the mishnah referenced by Lockshin, M. Yadayim 4:4 (translation from Sefaria).

On that very day, Yehuda, an Amonite convert, came and stood before them in the Beit Midrash, and said to them, “What is my status with regard to whether I can enter [via marriage] into the congregation [of Israel]?” Rabban Gamliel said to him, “You are prohibited.” Rabbi Yehoshua said to him, “You are permitted.” Rabban Gamliel said to him, “The verse says, (Deuteronomy 23:4) ‘An Amonite and a Moabite may not enter into the congregation of the Lord, even to the tenth generation,’ and so forth.” Rabbi Yehoshua said to him, “And are the Amonites or Moabites still [dwelling] in their own place? Sancheriv, king of Assyria, already arose and blended all the nations, as the verse says, (Isaiah 10:13) ‘I have removed the borders of nations, and I have plundered their treasures, and like a great warrior laid low the inhabitants.'” Rabban Gamliel said to him, “The verse [also] states, (Jeremiah 49:6) ‘And afterwards I shall return the captives of the children of Amon,’ and they are already returned.” Rabbi Yehoshua said to him, “The verse [also] states, (Amos 9:14) ‘And I shall return the captives of my nation Israel,’ [and Judah], and they are not yet returned.” They [the Sages, subsequently] permitted him [the Amonite convert] to enter into the congregation.

In the days of the Mishnah (approximately first two centuries CE, about 800-1000 years before Rashbam), the sages argue about a prohibition on marrying Amonites and Moabites. The lenient position wins the day, precisely because Rabbi Yehoshua understands historical change. The folk living in the territory formerly belonging to the Amonites are no longer actual Amonites, due to Assyrian invasion and population transfer. If Rabbi Yehoshua had held, like Rashi, that “to this day” means the Amonites still existed, then he would have been unable to allow the “Amonite” to marry into the people of Israel.

So we find that although Rashi’s take opens up certain spiritual possibilities in drawing close to an ancient text, we also need Rashbam’s pragmatic awareness that circumstances change, and context matters. May our study of Torah continue to open us to its eternal relevance, and to a proper understanding of what should be left in ages past so that we can create just, respectful, and inclusive communities today.